Area civic leaders remain concerned about the future of the Klein farm property in Fresh Meadows following its recent sale to a convicted felon who illegally tore down trees on the protected site.
Ziming Shen of Manhattan, who runs a preschool on the historic Klein property at 194-15 73 Ave., remains under house arrest for stealing funds designated for poor children’s lunches from his chain of Red Apple preschools.
Although Shen was hauled into court in May for not meeting his obligation of paying the $5.2 million judgment against him, he bought the Klein property a month later for $5.6 million and got a $1.45 million mortgage, according to the city’s Department of Finance records.
Shen had been renting the property under a six-year lease for the preschool from another convicted felon, Thomas Huang, who bought it in 2003 for $4.3 million as part of his now-defunct Audrey Realty.
Huang had wanted to build 22 two-family houses or 18 dwellings, but both plans failed since the site is located in a special planned community preservation district.
Last year, Shen illegally destroyed several mature trees on the property and illegally constructed a driveway. He was fined $1,600. Since then, the trees have not been replaced and the front yard on the 2.5-acre site has been neglected.
Preschool classes are now held in an adjacent house on the property. In the past, the large brick farmhouse was used for the school.
Area civic activists, who for years have wanted the property converted to public use as a farm museum or similar institution, are puzzled by the recent high-priced purchase since Shen will be unable to develop the property.
Jim Trent, founder of the city-owned Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park, was a major proponent of the city purchasing the farm, to be run by the Parks Department. “We didn’t see this coming,” Trent said. “Can you make that much money at a preschool?”
Jim Gallagher, president of the Fresh Meadows Homeowners Civic Association, called the sale “a shock,” adding, “We don’t know what he has up his sleeve, but we’ll keep an eye on it.”
Maria DeInnocentis, Community Board 8’s area chairwoman for Fresh Meadows, said the sale is a concern. “I hope the feds will look into this,” she added.
All are asking for a community dialogue with Shen, but even City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) sent a letter to him at the preschool address because he doesn’t know how to reach him. “I put him on notice that he can’t build there,” Weprin said. “I’m nervous he spent so much on the property when you can’t do anything with it.”
The Chronicle reached out to Judge Dora Irizarry’s office. She was the presiding judge in the Shen embezzlement case. Christa Carosella, case manager for the judge, said on Tuesday that Irizarry may not know about the purchase and she would inform her, which could have an effect on the disposition of his case.
Carosella noted that Shen is under house arrest for a year until October to take care of his children while his wife serves 46 months for the same crime.
Prior to the trial, Shen had his bail revoked after prosecutors said he was secretly planning to flee to China.
If he fails to pay the $5.2 million owed the government, Shen faces three years of jail time, an additional fine and any of his property, including the farm, could be seized for payment.
The site has been a farm dating back to the early 1800s.